The Cockleshell Heroes (1955)
Directed by: José Ferrer
Written by: Bryan Forbes, George Kent, Richard Maibaum
Starring: Anthony Newley, Christopher Lee, David Lodge, Dora Bryan, John Fabian, José Ferrer, Peter Arne, Trevor Howard, Victor Maddern
THE COCKLESHELL HEROES (1955)
Directed by José Ferrer
Available on Blu-Ray
The Royal Marines are tasked with taking down a battalion of German cargo ships docked at Bordeaux that are ferrying supplies to Germany to help the Nazi war effort. Leading the mission is newly promoted Major Stringer, an eccentric but clever individual who has an unusual idea on how to take out the heavily-guarded ships: paddle 70 miles up the river by canoe under the cover of darkness over a period of nights to reach the port before blowing up the ships with limpet mines. Assigned a group of hazardous service volunteer soldiers, Stringer and his doubtful second-in-command Captain Thompson set about moulding the soldiers into a squad who’ll be capable enough to execute Stringer’s plan.
Based on the real-life commando raid, codename Operation Frankton, THE COCKLESHELL HEROES is a thrilling war film that manages to be respectful to its source inspiration whilst providing all the ingredients that make a darn good movie. With José Ferrer in the driving seat as both director and lead star, the film excels in its depiction of a squad of unlikely soldiers who use unconventional methods to achieve a goal that the Navy could not do.
This isn’t just an ordinary war film though. Embracing the eccentricity of the idea comes a screenplay that is awash with humour. The first instance of this is our introduction to Ferrer’s Major Stringer who’s been picked up after illegally canoeing. Obviously he was intent on getting some practice in before unveiling his grand master-plan! The comical scenes flow pretty often from that scene onward with quips from the extremely likeable and diverse set of hazardous service soldiers to madcap tests set by Stringer. Where else can you see a Major test the ingenuity of his soldiers by having them parachute into Liverpool wearing German uniforms and having to make their way back to base in under 48 hours using any means necessary as long as they’re not arrested? The ensuing race back to camp is an absolute hoot to watch. This type of fun enthusiasm displayed by Stringer is present throughout the film even though second-in-command Captain Thompson (Trevor Howard) initially despises Stringer’s entire approach to the operation. Being a traditional Marine and having served in the army a lot longer than Stringer, Thompson isn’t exactly welcoming of his new boss nor his orders. These two sides play off each other remarkably well as they begin as polar opposites before both adopting some of the better qualities of the other.
When the action moves towards the mission, the tone of the movie does shift a bit as suddenly everyone realises the fun and games are now over. All the practice and hard work has been for the Operation and the result of its success is down to them. Not guaranteed to survive or evade capture really adds to the tension and I even found myself holding my breath in instances where the Nazi guards are inches from discovering the Marines. It’s pretty exhilarating to watch but to know that it’s based on true events only makes it that much more poignant.
As a movie, everything about THE COCKLESHELL HEROES is a joy to behold. The performances by Ferrer, Howard and the men are all outstanding with each bringing a unique persona to their characters. It’s witty, macho and even has a musical number in it courtesy of one of the female soldiers (naturally it ends in a bar brawl). Christopher Lee also makes an appearance, albeit a very brief one, as the captain of the British submarine that transports the Marines to their dropoff point in France where they must begin their journey.
Having been completely unaware of the actual event, I think it’s important that films like THE COCKLESHELL HEROES exist to document the exceptional sacrifices that were made for this country and those of our allies, even if embellished or using a little artistic licence (which most films do). It’s because of this movie I’ve now looked further to see who the real Cockleshell Heroes were.
Never halting the momentum, THE COCKLESHELL HEROES effectively presents this riveting story with awe-inspiring valor veiled with traditional British humour.